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Emergency contraception, pseudo-science, and media bias

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jun 07, 2012

Here’s an interesting case study in news coverage of scientific issues: The New York Times has given prominent attention to a report that “emergency contraceptive" pills may not be abortifacient.

Setting aside the merits of the argument, the Times story is significant in itself because it acknowledges the real concerns of pro-lifers that the emergency contraceptives cause abortions. Even the headline refers directly to the controversy: “Abortion Qualms on Morning-After Pill May Be Unfounded.”

Ordinarily, reports in the mainstream media have dismissed any such concerns, assuring readers that these pills are not abortifacient, and any concerns raised by pro-lifers must be based on simple misunderstandings. The pills don’t cause abortions, reporters have told us time and again; they simply prevent the fertilized egg from becoming implanted in the uterus. So the fertilized egg—a fetus, a human being—dies.

When plain people speak in plain language, a drug that is intended to cause the death of an unborn child is called an abortifacient. But ordinary rules don’t apply to the abortion debate, and certainly not to the media coverage of that debate. Instead, reporters have instructed us that an “abortion” is something that occurs after the fetus is implanted in the womb. There is no scientific evidence to support that claim, yet we have been admonished to accept it, because (the reporters tell us) any contrary view is simply unscientific.

But now the New York Times has come a few steps in the direction of accepting the pro-lifers’ concerns. There is a legitimate reason for concern that the emergency contraceptives cause early abortions, the article tells us. Or rather, there was a legitimate concern. But don’t worry, the problem has been cleared up. No reason for concern now.

There’s a familiar pattern at work here. The mainstream media rarely report on studies that show the dangerous effects of contraceptive pills--until there are competing studies to suggest that the pills are safe. The media do not report on studies showing the connection between abortion and breast cancer, until reporters find a study denying that connection. So women might read a front-page story, claiming that the risk of having a stroke after using birth-control pills has been exaggerated, and remark to herself: “Funny, I never knew there was any extra risk of having a stroke.”

You see the pattern: When scientific studies point to a danger from contraception and/or abortion, those studies are ignored, or hidden on the inside pages. When studies suggest the Pill is safe, that’s front-page news. The mainstream media are determined to give you all the news you need to know, and what you “need to know” is that contraception is safe—whether or not that’s true.

In this week’s news the Times has also conceded that pro-lifers were not entirely crazy when they said that the emergency contraceptives could prevent the implantation of fertilized eggs. After all:

Labels inside every box of morning-after pills, drugs widely used to prevent pregnancy after sex, say they may work by blocking fertilized eggs from implanting in a woman’s uterus. Respected medical authorities, including the National Institutes of Health and the Mayo Clinic, said the same thing on their Web sites.

The thrust of the Times report is that the labels on the boxes are misleading. Those respected medical authorities have been misinforming the public, the Times tells us. Now this really is news, if it’s true.

But a devastating critique of the Times report, appearing in National Review Online, brings us back to scientific reality.

First of all, writes Donna Harrison—an ob/gyn who has been involved in this controversy—there are two popular emergency-contraceptive pills, and one of them is unquestionably abortifacient:

The European Medical Association technical review articles state that Ella is embryocidal. That means that Ella kills embryos.

The other emergency contraceptive, known as Plan B, is the main focus of the latest scientific questioning. Does it, or does it not, prevent pregnancy by preventing fertilized eggs from implanting in the uterus? The answer is not at all clear. Or rather, the answers (notice the plural there) are clear enough, but they contradict each other.

Supporters of Plan B assure potential customers that the drug is effective, Dr. Harrison explains. To offer that assurance, they point to high (90%) rates of “success” in preventing—or ending—pregnancy. However, those impressive success rates are built upon the assumption that the drug can prevent implantation. So when pro-lifers say that the drug causes early abortions, its advocates say that it does not, and its rate of “success” is consequently lower, at around 50%. As Dr. Harrison puts it,

So when the issue of mechanism of action is raised, suddenly the efficacy for Plan B gets “adjusted” to what would be expected from a drug with no post-fertilization effect. But, when issues of funding arise . . . well Plan B becomes much more effective.

In final analysis, does Plan B cause early abortions, or not? I don’t know; I’m not a scientist. But I do know that the debate is unresolved, no matter what the New York Times tells us, and that we’re likely to read a good deal more political propaganda than scientific reasoning on the issue. For me, the common-sense logic of Dr. Harrison is persuasive: “In point of fact, any drug which can act to prevent pregnancy after a woman has ovulated must have some post-fertilization effect.”

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Bellarminite1 - Jun. 11, 2012 4:06 PM ET USA

    You write: "The mainstream media rarely report on studies that show the dangerous effects of contraceptive pills--until there are competing studies to suggest that the pills are safe. The media do not report on studies showing the connection between abortion and breast cancer, until reporters find a study denying that connection." I believe this is true, but no one seems to ever talk about why.

  • Posted by: Michael Burton - Jun. 08, 2012 10:13 AM ET USA

    While I agree that the mainstream media has a strong bias, I'm not sure why it matters. If they actually found that birth control raised risks of breast cancer or acted as an abortifacient it still wouldn't make people realize the REAL reason to not use contraception: it's not in God's design for marriage, sex, and family. I also want to emphasize that we have our own bias in that I know plenty of Catholics that quote pseudoscience in a misguided attempt to advance Catholic agendas.

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